Phnom Penh is a wonderful den of iniquity: discuss

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June 16th 2009
Published: June 19th 2009
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Around Phnom Penh

Accommodation seeking

From the WikiTravel entry for Phnom Penh: "For western visitors, Phnom Penh can be a rough change. It can be very hot and (in the dry season) dusty, its infrastructure is largely lacking, and it is very poor - much poorer than, for example, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Visitors who can't handle rubbish and dust in the streets, risky traffic, blocked sidewalks, prowling tuk tuk and moto-drivers, touts and beggars may not enjoy the city."

Well, blow me, what kind of city were we entering here? And more troubling, it seemed to be backed up by travller accounts I'd come across. Added to this the rather dangerous reputation of the city: for example, the significant chance of robbery, increased in recent years, and the tragic case of a French 28 year old woman who was robbed and dragged into an oncoming vehicle, fatally. So, a slight sense of trepidation when we arrived in PP after a final leg of our boat journey from Vietnam, by bus.

We were dropped off at a hotel as is usual in the bus and hotel cabal that seems to run over here. We had a look around, I say "we", but not
The Independence MonumentThe Independence MonumentThe Independence Monument

Monument commemorating independence from France in 1953.
just myself and AJ but also a Canadian dude called S**, who had his camera stolen the previous day because he left it on the bus. He also had his wallet hanging out the back of his baggy pants, not the most experienced traveller we had ever met, this despite teaching English in the Koreas for 14 months.

Anyway, AJ and myself were pretty unanimous in not wanting to stay at this hotel, it was not near everything and we'd read that walking around at night was not safe, so we checked out the room (in case it was encased in gold and glorious splendour). So we got a tuk tuk that was hanging around outside the hotel and negotiated a price at what we thought was good for Cambodia. Alas, everything was in US dollars as the Cambodia Riel is pegged to it, so that meant, all prices are in dollar mode, and not half dollars or 2.50 for example. This made Cambodia surprisingly expensive compared to good old Vietnam.

Boeung Kak Lake

Anyway, we all got to the Boeung Kak Lake of Phnom Penh, a backpacker area on a soon to be filled in lake, no more guest houses or backpacker ghetto. Yippee! To our surprise it was just one long alleyway, full of the usual shite associated with traveller backpackers and western sex tourists. Hamburger joints, cafes, mp3 joints, guest houses and tattoo parlours. Oh, and did I mention the touts? The constant fucking hassle for a place to stay, a tuk tuk here, you come here, where you from? where you go, where you going? what's your name, you want room? Loathsome it was, and put us in a mood because we were looking for somewhere that was listed in the LP, but of course we couldn't find it. Tuk tuk drivers tried to "drive" us there or take us to a place that was a copycat, so we just tried to find somewhere in this gauntlet of hassle. We even had some German offer some help, but he was not aware of what planet he currently was on let along which guest house he could recommend. Similiarly the woman out front who when I asked about the place, could only enthuse that it was really great and had stayed multiple places, but hadn't actually stayed anywhere else. Dopes. We eventually stayed at a place for a good cheap price and it was right on the lakeside. The rooms were pretty basic and grubby but they were at least floating on the water. We then proceeded to have some dinner on the front with a few beers of "Angkor", a great breeze in hot PP was appreciated and a lakeside view at night but something was amiss.

Pleasant as it was, , there were too many Cambodians around for a backpacker hostel. We also had 4 African guys next to us on a table and they weren't talking to each other but there were three Cambodian girls with clothes on that shouted "slapper" (with a Cambodian accent of course).

Anyway, AJ and I were not too happy there, the vibe just wasn't right for a backpacker joint so we got up and left, going next door instead for its terrace. Of course we soon bumped into a couple English guys from our Mekong trip, the sort of gruff Ralf Lauren, upturned collars types, and who spoke with either a wide boy accent or like-a-really-slow-thick-er-like-English accent-yeh? Who were they sitting with? Yeh, three Cambodian women and a Cambodian fella, and they were drinking and playing cards. AJ and I proceeded to take the piss by saying we were from different places, AJ was now from Finland and called Peter, I was called Jesper from Sweden. Within a couple of minutes the whore to the left of me was giving attitude, telling me to "shut up, man" without any provocation. So we'd had enough by this point, clearly the English guys were happy associating themselves with local prostitutes. But of course I had to get talking to dozy twerp from Marseilles, wiz a ridiculous French ak-cent, and sadly my name in French - Jean We shared a joint and I got a bit dizzy but the tart (who looked like she'd recently had a kid) who wasn't wearing very much was glaring at me, so we played some pool instead. Soon enough, with a dodgy leaning pool table we went back to the place we'd come from. There, we sat around the lake on some rugs, some Cambodian women had joined us again. Word had clearly got around the coterie of prozzies in the guest houses that I was persona non grata, so another young woman was giving me shit, saying she wouldn't talk to me. Fine with me love! Anyway, I got a bit fed up with the charade of everyone treating these women as if they were friendly locals, when clearly they were there to hook up and make money as prostitutes. So, I told her where to go as she was some sily prossie after money and the English guys as well as the Frenchman didn't take too kindly to that, saying I was out of order, when they seemed to have forgotten that she was making an attack on me. However, I wasn't putting up with this charade any longer and got myself out of there.

AJ made an arse of himself with this woman later on, a minor peccadillo which only enforced our desire to get the hell out of this seedy gaff.

Rejoining civilised society

We got out of that place in the morning, full of recriminations for having stayed in such a crummy dodgy shit hole. We got a tuk tuk to take us to the FCC - the Foreign Correspondents Club on the riverside. The good thing about travelling with AJ is that we are on the same wave length alot, so we both wanted breakfast and we both wanted to go to the FCC for some history and a setting for PP.

Overlooking the river Sonle Lap I picked up free wifi as I ate my scrambled eggs and tea, whilst AJ had his coffee and croissant whilst reading the Phenom Penh Post. We then checked into the more upmarket White Lotus guest house, opposite the National Museum. We visited it later that day, chock full of Angkor Wat statues and sculpture, unfortunately we couldn't take any pictures of them. We then had a walk around the city visiting the Independence Monument, with an Angkor Wat style.

Facing up to the Khmer Rouge

History lesson from Wikipedia: (I won't kid myself, I don't want to paraphrase or misrepresent History in this blog)
The Khmer Rouge is remembered mainly for the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million people or 1/5 of the country's total population (estimates range from 850,000 to 2.5 million) under its regime, through execution, torture, starvation and forced labor. Because of the large number of deaths, the deaths during the rule of the Khmer Rouge are often considered a genocide.

Following their leader Pol Pot, the Khmer
Rouge imposed an extreme form of social engineering on Cambodian society — a radical form of agrarian communism where the whole population had to work in collective farms or forced labor projects. In terms of the number of people killed as a proportion of the population (est. 1.75 million people, as of 1975), it was one of the most lethal regimes of the 20th century.

One of the instruments of that regime was the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former high school which was used as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime. This place was pretty grim as an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng. At any one time, the prison held between 1,000-1,500 prisoners. They were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed. In the early months of S-21's existence, most of the victims were from the previous Lon Nol regime and included soldiers, government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, etc. Later, the party leadership's paranoia turned on its own ranks and purges throughout the country saw thousands of party activists and their families brought to Tuol Sleng and murdered. When the Vietnamese finally invaded Cambodia and kicked the Khmer Rouge out of power, they found freshly killed prisoners chained to bed frames, and this is what we see today, classrooms with the bed and photograph of the victim. There are only 12 known survivors of the prison camp.

I saw a few Cambodians and Westerners walking around in a daze with tears in their eyes. I was pretty ashen faced myself, and what else could you be - staring at black and white photos of thousands of victims whom the Khmer Rouge meticulously documented. Outside was what looked like a swing but was in fact where prisoners were hung behind their backs and dunked into water. Other torture elements and instruments were on show in the classrooms, all pretty gruesome stuff and just a depressing experience. I still can't get my head around who supported the Kymer Rouge and why...I need to apportion blame...but am still in doubt. I'm still reading Brother Number 1: A political biography of Pol Pot to find out...

Further impressions of PP

I took a walk around the city and I have to say I was rather enamoured with it, it's not as dusty and gross as the travel guides suggest. But perhaps because I'm male and I didn't get robbed or shot at has given me the favourable opinion of the city. In fact I found it more sane and less hassle than in Vietnam. To be sure there is poverty on the streets, with kids in rags and dirty black hair as well as what seemed to be families sleeping out on the streets but this is reality and I was never hassled and nor was I freaked out.

To make ourselves feel better AJ and I went to a wonderful restaurant called Friends which is entirely worked by ex street children as a chance to get an opportunity to work in hospitality. They get to use English, work in a Western standard eatery and get a way into big old posh hotels and restaurants in the city. Basically, a life changing opportunity is created. The food was great, the service too and this is what he had, all delicious.

Grilled fish fillet with salsa verde
Khmer pork and vegetable fried rice
Cambodia chicken curry
Curried pumpkin soup with
coriander and garlic croutons.

Sounds delicious, huh?

Royal Palace

The last morning I settled on seeing the Royal Palace (yes they have a monarchy here and the king is very much revered, but not as many portraits as in Thailand). The last king (who abdicated in 2004 and is now known King Father) was a funny sort, more interested in film directing than ruling it seems. According to Wikipedia again, he held so many positions (since 1941) that the Guinness Book of World Records identifies him as the politician who has served the world's greatest variety of political offices. These included two terms as King, two as sovereign prince, one as president, two as prime minister, and one as Cambodia's non-titled head of state, as well as numerous positions as leader of various governments-in-exile.

Anyway, I ventured out in one of the hottest days I've ever experienced in south east Asia. The Palace complex only dates from 1866 as the capital was moved before, but it's definitely up there with Bangkok's Grand Palace in terms of architecture and colours (and gold). However, as I will be bitterly reminded by every good Cambodian, Thai culture is heavily borrowed from Cambodia, having sacked Angkor Wat in 1471 and ran off with booty, artisans and dancers finally and essentially killing it off.

Anyway, check out the pictures. By afternoon we were on a VIP bus to Siem Reap (Siam defeated!) and the ancient, spectacular, superlative Angkor Wat!

Oh, and Phnom Penh, it's not as bad as all that, and I rather liked it, a quiet, up and coming city.


- thank you in Khmer

Additional photos below
Photos: 20, Displayed: 20


AJ and hawkerAJ and hawker
AJ and hawker

Another scene of AJ fighting off the sunglasses sellers

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